Vantages (Draft of Truth and Context, Chapter Three (2001))
1) The Framer and the Framed.
Argument: That if we are to understand what it means for assertions to frame us, we have to understand ‘us.’ Language cannot be understood independent of language users.
Argument: That the occluded frame structure evinced by assertions is the structure of ‘perspective.’
3) From Perspectives to Vantages.
Argument: that ‘perspective discourse’ is an ineliminable part of philosophical and meta-philosophical discourse.
3) The Basic Claim.
Argument: that a vantage, in order to be a vantage, must be a vantage on something that exceeds it. The ‘independence of the world’ can be paraphrased as the ‘transcendence of the world.’
4) The Occluded Frame Structure of Vantages.
Argument: that notions of ‘mind,’ ‘consciousness,’ and so on, are reifications of the occluded frame structure of vantages.
5) The Mystery
Argument: that although vantages in no way explicitly resolve the problem of intentionality, they remain something that we, as the ‘possessors’ of concrete vantages on the world, understand implicitly.
[What follows is a previous draft of the above chapter, entitled “Perspectives”]
If understanding meaning requires understanding what it means for linguistic performances to frame us, we need to understand what it means to be ‘us.’ The previous chapter attempted to introduce the two central analogies of this account, and elaborate them into a preliminary account of meaning. It was suggested that in an important sense we are the concrete meaning of what we say. But the identification of one mystery with another does little if anything to clarify matters. The question simply becomes: What are we fundamentally?
A preliminary answer to this question has also been suggested: we are our perspectives. But this simply adds a third mystery to our equation. Aside from making explicit the occluded frame structure of perspectives, very little has been said about what perspectives are. The present chapter will attempt to further explicate them.
Even though talk of ‘standpoints,’ ‘outlooks,’ ‘viewpoints,’ ‘points of view,’ and the like is ubiquitous in philosophical discourse, these terms are very rarely the subject of philosophical scrutiny. Most often we use these terms to delineate differing philosophical positions in a given debate. We commonly speak of the ‘pragmatist view’ or the ‘traditional outlook’ as a means of globally isolating different positions with respect to some unitary subject matter. But quite often we use them differently, as a way to organize observations from within a given ‘philosophical standpoint,’or even as an epistemic pejorative, a barrier to the desideratum of ‘knowledge.’ Regardless of how we use them, however, in each case we rely on an implicit understanding of just what perspectives are. We understand that competing philosophical positions are something like different perspectives on the same thing. We understand that perspectives are something that must be ‘overcome’ in some sense in order to achieve true belief. And so on.
This implicit understanding is precisely what I intend to make explicit.
2 Perspectives are always perspectives ‘on something from somewhere.’
Perspectives exhibit an important features not found in intentionality per se. Like intentional relations, perspectives exhibit ‘aboutness,’ which is to say perspectives are always perspectives on something. Unlike intentional relations, however, perspectives are always concretely situated in the world; perspectives are always from somewhere. Where the ‘from somewhere’ of an intentional relation to a red apple is independent of that relation, the ‘from somewhere’ of a perspective on a red apple, on the other hand, is constitutive of that perspective as a perspective.
In other words, the ‘from somewhere’ of our perspectives is internally related to the ‘something’ our perspectives are ‘on.’ Transforming the ‘from somewhere’ of our perspective transforms the ‘on something’ of our perspective. Occupying different positions relative to a red apple determines just what of the apple we see, whether it is bruised, ripe, or the like.
To say perspectives are always ‘on something from somewhere,’ then, is to say the way our perspective frames the world depends on the way our perspective is framed by the world. This suggests an entirely different manner of understanding our relation to the world.
2.1 The inexplicit, implicit, and explicit world.
Given that our perspectives are always ‘on something from somewhere,’ we are accordingly related to the world in two ways: 1) insofar as we frame the world; and 2) insofar as the world frames us. In other words, the structure of our perspectival relation to world looks something like
[ O ]
from somewhere on something from somewhere
in the world in the world in the world
wherein we frame the world that occlusively frames us. When we possess a perspective on a table in a room, for instance, the table is what is framed and our position in the room is what is occluded. Certainly we can frame our occluded position, ‘make it explicit,’ by occupying a new position and looking at our former position, but this subsequent position will be likewise occluded. We can only frame the from somewhere of our perspective ‘from somewhere else.’ We can only make the from somewhere of our perspective explicit, in other words, by adopting a further inexplicit from somewhere.
In perspectival terms, then, the world is fundamentally bifurcated into the explicit world, the world as framed by our perspective, and the inexplicit world, the world as it occlusively frames our perspective on it. This allows for an understanding of the structure of perspectives as something like
[ O ]
inexplicit world intentional mode explicit world intentional mode inexplicit world
believe, etc. believe, etc.
where the inexplicit world constitutes the occluded from somewhere of our perspective. Since we can always frame this from somewhere from somewhere else, which is to say, make the inexplicit world explicit, we can always implicitly understand where we stand in the world in the course of making it explicit. This suggests a ‘middle ground’ between the inexplicit and explicit world, what might be called the implicit world, the world as frame as implicitly understood. This allows for an even more sophisticated understanding of the understanding of the structure of perspectives as something like
[ O ]
implicit world intentional mode explicit world intentional mode implicit world
neurophysiology say say neurophysiology
history perceive perceive history
culture/tradition desire desire culture/tradition
language-games believe, etc. believe, etc. language-games
spatio-temporal position spatio-temporal position
sensory physiology, etc. sensory physiology, etc.
where each element listed under the ‘implicit world’ indicates a generalized way in which we implicit understand, on the basis of past framings or explications, the world that frames us. Given performance-reference asymmetry, the implicit world is constitutively occluded at any given moment, but after the fact we can always make it explicit in some respect by simply shifting our position–by framing what had occlusively framed us.
2.2 Perspectives and contexts.
This understanding of perspectival structure provides an intuitively powerful way to explicitly understand contexts.
At least two important features characterize our present and largely implicit understanding of contexts. First, we understand that contexts constitute a constraint on meaning. Meaning, we like to say, is ‘context dependent.’ Any locution can mean entirely different things given differences of context. The significance of any number of things in the world will differ in any number of ways depending on the relevant context. We implicitly understand that contexts are somehow internally related to meanings.
Second, we understand that contexts are somehow related to truth, although the exact nature of this relation remains an acrimonious issue. Contextualists, for instance, insist truth is a special function of context dependence, that given certain linguistic and nonlinguistic contexts, certain locutions will be counted either true or false. Rationalists, on the other hand, insist truth is a function of context independence, that certain locutions just are true or false regardless of context.
As one might expect, the ‘context-meaning conviction’ and the ‘context-truth hunch’ are intimately related. If contexts are internally related to meanings ‘all the way down,’ and if all contexts are contingent, then it simply follows that truth, as a component of meaning, is simply a function of contingent contexts. No truths are context independent. If, on the other hand, truth is a function of context independence, then it simply follows that meaning, although context dependent in certain respects, must be context independent in some respect. Some meanings must be essential.
The issue of context, in other words, plays an absolutely pivotal role in our philosophical self-understanding–so much so that the general reluctance to interrogate it should be puzzling. By and large context is simply assumed as an explanatory and argumentative primitive. As a result, our understanding of context has largely remained implicit (as one might expect, given the absence of an adequate onto-analogical point of departure). Such is not the case here.
Contexts, on this account, refer us to how things are implicitly with respect to our perspectives on how things are explicitly. Contexts pertain to the world-as-frame. They provide a way to make the occluded ‘from somewhere’ of our perspectives explicit.
Given this, one can actually explain why context is internally related to meaning. Since the from somewhere of our perspective is constitutive of our perspective, transformations in perspectival position amount to transformations of perspective. And since meanings simply are momentary perspectives, transformations in perspectival position amount to transformations in meaning.
And given this, we also find a promising way to approach the question of truth. Given that contexts are somehow related to truth, it follows that perspectival positions are somehow related to truth–a connection already suggested by the implicit epistemic privilege evinced by turns of phrase such as ‘taking a bird’s eye view,’ ‘the view sub specie aeternitatus,’ and the like.
As stated, a primary desideratum of the present study is to specify the relation of truth and context within an adequate ontological account of what we are fundamentally. The definition of contexts as explications of perspectival positions constitutes an important first step in this regard.
2.3 Privation, transcendence, and retention.
To say that contexts constrain meaning is to say they constrain our perspectives. The constitutive ‘from somewhere’ of our perspective always limits our perspectival relation to the constitutive ‘on something’ of our perspective. This means that perspectives are intrinsically privative. There is always ‘something more’ to whatever our perspective is on. A perspective always constitutes one ‘angle’ among many on something in the world. Another way to express this is to say our perspectives are always from somewhere on something transcendent. Thus the constitutive importance of perspectival positions, or contexts: our position in the world determines how much of the world we see. By altering our position, that is, by viewing the world from different angles, we can always see more of the world–we can always frame what had transcended our initial perspective.
A perspective can see more, however, only if it is somehow able to ‘include’ something of its previous positions. To see more of something, is to see the same something from a subsequent angle. One can see more of the same something only if this subsequent angle somehow retains previous angles. Perspectival retention, no less than perspectival position, is constitutive of perspectives. Without perspectival retention, our perspectives on the world would amount to no more than ‘disconnected snapshots’ of disconnected aspects from disconnected positions. Our perspective would literally be unintelligible as a perspective: since there would be ‘nothing more to see’ of what we see, we would apparently see everything there is to see. We would then fail to recognize that we possess an angle on anything, which is to say, that we possess a perspective. We would be unable to recognize what we are.
In this account, perspectival retention will be understood as an attenuation of perspectival position. This might be difficult to understand insofar as I have primarily relied on our implicit understanding of our visual perspectives, and so our spatial understanding of ‘position,’ to make the structure of our perspectives explicit. Certainly our spatial position in a room itself retains nothing of our previous spatial positions. But our perspectival position, I hope to show, is far more than our spatial position, even though the latter largely provides the analogical template for understanding the former. This more sophisticated sense of perspectival positionality is captured by the conflation of contexts with perspectival positions. When we move from one position to another, we are exchanging one context for another. Although it seems strange to say our previous position belongs to our subsequent position, it makes perfect sense to say that our previous context belongs to or ‘informs’ our subsequent context. In this sense, the elaboration of perspectival positionality below will also serve to make our implicit understanding of this crucial aspect of contexts explicit.
We recognize our perspectives as privative, then, not only because the world transcends them, but because they are able to transcend themselves, which is to say, because they are able to retentively take further positions relative to the same thing. The evidence of this self-transcendence lies in our open ability to always see more (a concept that will become decisive in our understanding of cognition). When we see more of something, we understand we had previously seen less, and that we presently do not see all there is to see. We understand that although ‘just how much’ we see of the world is constrained by our perspectival position, we can always transcend those constraints and see more by adopting a different perspectival position. And this means that despite being perspectivally ‘context bound’ at any given moment, we can always transcend our contexts. The possibility of context transcendence is internal to the possibility of recognizing our perspectives as perspectives. We are capable of recognizing our perspectives, hence we are capable of transcending our contexts.
Given the association of retention and memory, I should perhaps reaffirm the ontological nature of these interpretative explications. Given the Bottleneck, recall, the attempt to incorporate naturalistic observations in the description and explanation of intentional phenomena constitutes a category mistake. In this sense, the psychology and the neurophysiology of memory are irrelevant to the ontological consideration of perspectival retention. This is not to say that a consideration of potential structural correlations between what retention is intentionally and what it is naturally is not worthwhile, only that such considerations can tell us very little of what we are intentionally. To adopt, for a moment, the natural position of the priority loop: we are considering our brain’s self-interpretation, the way it implicitly understands itself in the first instance, and not the way it interprets itself via environmental inputs. And since this self-interpretation is fixed, recall, the kind of ontological interpretation deployed here explains how our natural self-understanding is possible in the first place. This, I hope, will become more evident as the account develops through subsequent chapters.
2.x Auto-transcendence, perspectival self-identity, and temporality.
In order to be perspectives, our perspectives must always be from somewhere on something, In order to be recognized as perspectives, our perspectives must always be from somewhere else on something else–our perspectives must be retentively ‘auto-transcendent,’ must be able to see more. But what does ‘auto-transcendence’ mean? How is that our present perspectives, which are always concrete, momentary, and singular, can be the same perspective as the one we possessed moments ago? How is it that the perspective that frames this very moment, is somehow the same as and yet different from the perspective that frames this very moment?
The question of perspectival auto-transcendence is the question of perspectival self-identity in self-difference through time. Though our perspectives on the world continually transform as time passes, we implicitly understand that our perspectives are somehow the same. This identity through difference, despite its paradoxical nature, constitutes an essential structural component of our perspectival relation to the world. Not only does it constitute an indispensable epistemic condition of recognizing our perspectives as perspectives, it also constitutes an ontological condition of possessing a perspective on more. In its absence, it becomes inconceivable that our perspective could ever reveal more of the world. In other words, cognition becomes inconceivable.
Reframing the problem, we might say that though our perspectives on the world are, at any given moment, from somewhere different, our perspectives are also, in a strange sense, from nowhere different. We are always here and now, no matter where we find ourselves.
2.4 Perspectives are always perspectives on the world.
A perspective on nothing is not intelligible as a perspective. A perspective must always be a perspective on something transcendent to be intelligible as a perspective. So far it has simply been assumed that this ‘something transcendent’ is the world. But is this the case? Could it be that our perspectives are in fact not on the world, but rather on representations on the world?
First, we need to distinguish between two general types of representation. Representations can be conceived in explicitly ontological terms, as something distinct that somehow mediates our relation to the world, or they can be conceived in formal terms, as a logical condition of our relation to the world. Since formal representationalism happily allows that our perspectives are perspectives on the world, it is not of immediate concern.
Ontological representationalism largely relies on the onto-analogy of the ‘picture.’ Impressions, ideas, certain neural states, statements, and so on, are thought to somehow mirror the world and re-present it to us in a manner analogous to paintings or photographs. Representationalism finds its philosophical importance as a means of explaining the mediation of our cognitive relation to the world. It answers the question, ‘Why are some locutions/perceptions true of the world while others are false?’ by recourse to the analogy of the picture: what we say and see re-presents the world in a manner that either does or does not correspond to how things are. Representationalism, in other words, mediates our cognitive relation to the world by positing a class of intermediaries, intervening things that at once enable and obstruct our relation to how things are.
Given representationalism, then, it follows that our perspectives are not perspectives on the world at all. As intermediaries, representations bisect our naive perspectival relation to the world into two distinct relations: a relation to our representations and a relation between our representations and the world. If we possess a perspective at all, then it must be a perspective on representations of the world rather than a perspective on the world. The problem with this supposition, however, is simply that it makes no sense.
Since perspectives must be privative in order to be intelligible as perspectives, the notion of a ‘little perspective’ on representations is unintelligible. In order to have a perspective on a representation, the perspective must be constitutively ‘incomplete.’ There must always be ‘more to see’ of some ‘fixed’ representation. If the representation is not fixed, but varies with our ‘reflection’ on it, there is never more to see. If the representation is fixed in some mysterious respect, then there is more to see. The problem here, of course, is that if there is more to see of a representation, there is always a chance that we are mistaken, which means that our relation to our representations is cognitive, which is to say, mediated in some respect, and the very problem representations were meant to resolve is simply reproduced at a different level. Hence, whatever our relation to representations might be, it is not perspectival.
What about the representation to world relation, then? Can we intelligibly say representations constitute perspectives on the world? The idea here would be that we are somehow perspectivally related to the world through our representations of it–as though representations were something like gloves we must use to grasp a smoldering world. If this were the case, however, then representations would be internally related to what they are ‘on’ when in fact quite the opposite is the case. As independent things, representations are externally related to what they represent–this is part of the rationale for postulating representations in the first place, what enables them to ‘obstruct.’ And even if this were not a problem, it still would be difficult to understand how we could be perspectivally related to something we do not in fact have a perspective on. Whatever the relation of representations to the inscrutable world beyond might be, it too is not perspectival. Representations do not present us with a perspective.
The most we can say, it seems, is that we somehow fool ourselves into thinking we have a perspective on the world given the conjunction of our internal aperspectival relation to our representations and our representations’ external aperspectival relation to the world. The most we can say, in other words, is that perspectives are merely illusions generated by our representationally mediated relation to the world. Given ontological representationalism, perspectives quite simply vanish.
Maybe this is a good thing, despite the way it jars common-sense. The only real way to secure the cognitive legitimacy of this ontological commitment, however, would be to follow out its consequences and see what kind of systematically comprehensive self-understanding it provides. Given the loss of our pretheoretical understanding of perspectives, we should expect to make compensatory gains elsewhere. Unfortunately, nothing even remotely resembling systematic self-recognition falls within ontological representationalism’s field of possible justification. Given this we should simply consider it for what it is: an ad hoc ontological means of understanding the mediation of our cognitive relation to the world that generates more difficulties than it resolves.
A full diagnosis of the systematic self-misrecognition of our relation to the world in representational terms, of why we find the onto-analogy of the picture such an attractive point of departure, will be presented in chapter X, as will the diagnosis and rebuttal of things like the ‘argument from illusion.’ For the moment, it should suffice to mention that the structure of the diagnosis parallels the diagnosis of the reification of assertions provided in the previous chapter. Without any clear sense of the occluded frame structure of our perspectives, we are prone to construe our perceptions and locutions as things in their own right (‘pictures’), things we somehow ‘contain,’ and which are somehow logically and externally related to the world.
On this account, however, perceptions and locutions occlusively frame perspectives on a real and independent world. Perspectives are always from somewhere on something transcendent; they are unintelligible otherwise. Perspectivally understood, this is simply what the world is: the occluded from somewhere on something transcendent of our perspectives. Perspectives and the world, in other words, are conceptually linked. If we possess a perspective, then there is a world. Given this, one might expect any theoretical understanding that renders the world incoherent would render perspectives incoherent and vice versa. And indeed, this is precisely what happens with ontological representationalism.
If the world framed by our perspectives is not the world that occlusively frames our perspective, which is to say, if the explicit ‘world-as-represented’ is not the implicit world, then the latter becomes unintelligible to us. No matter what our perspectival position, we can never make the implicit world explicit. Since our perspectival position belongs to the implicit world, perspectival position itself becomes unintelligible. Not only does the assertion that our perspectives are ‘from somewhere’ become nonsense, the assertion that our perspectives are ‘from nowhere’ becomes nonsense as well. If ‘perspectival position’ becomes unintelligible then we cannot even speak of the absence of perspectival position. Since perspectival position is constitutive of our perspectives as perspectives, the unintelligibility of perspectival position amounts to the unintelligibility of perspectives. By losing the world we lose our perspectives. The world is a necessary condition of perspectives.
On this account, the explicit world is the inexplicit world–seen from a certain perspective. When we ‘take a step back’ and examine our previously occluded position, we possess a perspective on that position, not on something else. Our perspectives, in order to be intelligible as perspectives, must access the world ‘in itself.’ The world ‘in itself,’ as Hegel and Heidegger insisted, is not something categorically distinct from the world ‘for us.’
The world for us is simply the world as framed by our perspective, which is simply the world in itself seen from a certain position in the world. Insofar as our perspective is privative, it is confined to one angle among many on how things are, but it remains an angle on how things are nonetheless. The world transcends us, certainly, but it does not elude us.
The obvious problem, however, is that the world does elude us much of the time. If our perspectives are always perspectives on how things are, then how is it we are so often mistaken? As mentioned above, this question provided ontological representationalism with its primary theoretical impetus. Indeed, since the beginning of philosophy thinkers have puzzled over the apparent unreliability of our cognitive relation to the world. Why is our view of some things so clear while our view of others is so murky if not illusory? What distinguishes clear views from murky or outright illusory ones?
Despite the apparent elegance of this account of perspectives, it will all come to naught if it cannot answer questions such as these. An adequate account of perspectives, in other words, must answer the question of what mediates our cognitive relation to the world.
3 Perspectival Positionality.
So how might we answer this question? The first thing to note is that perspectives are intrinsically epistemological. If we restrict our perspective by, say, wearing a blindfold, we suddenly find we know much less than we did before. If we augment our perspective by, say, looking through a pair of binoculars, we suddenly find we know much more than we did before. In each case, how much we know depends upon the constraints placed on our perspective. Perspectives are obviously epistemic, and in common parlance we refer to them as such all the time. We attempt to ‘get some perspective’ on various problems and events, or we condition the claims of others by saying ‘that’s just their view of things.’ As common as these explicit references to the epistemic dimension of perspectives may be, they are underwritten by a far more ubiquitous implicit understanding. When something eludes our understanding we attempt to comprehend it by maximizing our perspectival exposure to it. We ask for ‘ten-cent tours’ of unfamiliar homes. We turn curious objects over in our hand. We flick on the lights, or stare intently at the radar screen. This implicit understanding also underwrites our communicative interaction. We give reports of enemy troop dispositions to perspectivally cloistered commanders. We calculate our lies and lesson plans on the basis of implicit estimations of the limits of others’ perspectives.
The sheer ubiquity of this implicit understanding suggests our perspectives are fundamentally rather than incidentally epistemic. And this suggests we might answer the question of what mediates our cognitive relation to the world by asking what mediates our perspectival relation to the world. The answer to this question–and herein lies its advantage–is internal to our understanding of perspectives: our perspectival relation to the world is mediated by our perspectival position in the world. Our angle on the world is determined by our position in the world. What we see of a table in a room, for instance, depends on where we stand in a room.
The operative thesis, then, is simply this: our cognitive relation to the world is mediated by our perspectival position in the world. What we know of the world depends on just where we stand in the world.
Before I elaborate on this, we need to understand precisely what is at stake in this claim. I am not merely claiming that our perspectival relation to the world possesses a cognitive dimension–something few would deny. Rather, I am claiming that our perspectival relation exhausts our cognitive relation. Without perspective there is no knowledge, and where there is perspective, there is knowledge. Perspectives, in other words, are the necessary and sufficient conditions of knowledge.
Our operative thesis, then, is exceedingly strong. As such we might expect it to confront several major conceptual obstacles, obstacles that must be overcome if it is to be justified. There are at least two such obstacles. The first has to with the apparent aperspectival component of knowledge. How can knowledge be reduced to perspectives when it seems to be intrinsically antithetical to them? This obstacle possesses interrelated epistemic and semantic components: the ‘problem of objectivity’ and the ‘problem of truth.’ The former has to do with what seems to be the intrinsic subjectivity of perspectives. How can objectivity be the product of something essentially subjective? The latter has to do with the apparent ‘nowhereness’ of discursive truth. If truth-value constitutes an essential component of meaning, and if locutions are true or false irrespective of perspectival position, how can meaning simply ‘be’ a momentary perspective? The epistemic component of this obstacle will be considered in a preliminary manner here, and then subsequently threshed out in chapter X, where I will outline the theory of knowledge that follows from this account. The semantic component of this obstacle will be considered in the next chapter, where I will return to the question of assertions.
The second obstacle has to do with the apparent complexity of discursive knowledge. The only reason this complexity constitutes an obstacle is that, given our consideration of perspectives thus far, we seem to lack the resources to account for it. To say what we know of the world depends on where we stand in it, although it provides some purchase on our ‘brute’ perceptual knowledge of the world, seems hopelessly inadequate as a means of understanding our discursive knowledge of the world. And since it is impossible to ferret ‘brute perceptual knowledge’ from our discursive knowledge, it seems an inadequate means of understanding perceptual knowledge as well. Overcoming this obstacle will provide the focus of what follows.
This latter obstacle, like the former, only pertains to our understanding of perspectives as it stands. As it stands, perspectives have been understood in primarily literal terms, which is to say, according to the way we commonly understand them. Our common means of understanding perspective is at once spatial and visual. I have, by and large, described perspectives in a way that accords with it the Latin etymology of the word ‘perspective,’as a kind of ‘seeing through.’ I have used the onto-analogy of the ‘occluded frame’ as a means of understanding the ‘throughness’ of our perspectives, and I have used our common understanding of perspectives as ‘views from some position’ as a means of understanding the ‘seeing’ of our perspectives. Although it seems obvious that our spatial position in the world mediates our perspectival relation to the world, it seems implausible that perspectival positionality, construed in spatial terms, could theoretically accommodate anything approaching the complexity of our discursive knowledge. The only way such an accommodation can be reached is by onto-analogically extending our understanding of perspectival position.
In the same way contextualism demands we extend the ‘game’ beyond our common understanding of games and ontological representationalism demands we extend the ‘picture’ beyond our common understanding of pictures in an attempt to ‘capture’ the mediation of our cognitive relation to the world, this account demands that we extend our understanding of ‘perspective’ beyond our common understanding of perspectives. We have already witnessed this onto-analogical extension in the use of the ‘frame’ to make explicit a fundamental structural feature of perspectives.
Many would likely reject this way of looking at things. A contextualist, for instance, might object that the ‘game’ is simply a useful way of describing language, a way to facilitate understanding rather than the basis of what language is. I would agree entirely. The ‘game’ provides a powerful way of making our implicit linguistic self-understanding explicit. With some work we can recognize that language is in fact something like a game. By the same token, however, we have no choice but to begin with our common understanding, no choice but to draw the fundamental from the mundane. But this does not mean that the mundane is the basis of the fundamental, but that the mundane is the basis of making the fundamental explicit, which is to say, of theoretically understanding the fundamental. We can only explain those things we do not understand in terms of those things we do understand.
Of course, when we press mundane things like games, pictures, and frames, they quickly become mysterious, but such is the case with everything, mundane or fundamental. This is why isolated conceptual analyses or deconstructions, despite their usefulness as a means of suggesting alternative understandings, are well nigh meaningless from an evaluative standpoint: when anything can be made mysterious, ‘aporetic’ or ‘conceptually suspect,’ then deconstructions and isolated conceptual analyses are simply demonstrating the obvious. As far as the overall outlook is concerned, they impeach absolutely nothing, not even the possibility of linguistic understanding, which is something, in the end, we still possess. When any given claim within the inferential field of any philosophical standpoint can be independently discredited, the truly remarkable thing becomes the way the claims hang together in such a way that they produce a possible self-understanding. We can spout claims at will, as many as we like, but the difficult thing–so difficult that our intellectual history has only produced a handful of Aristotles, Kants, and Wittgensteins–is to systematically string them together into a comprehensive story that generates self-understanding. Such achievements cannot be written off by simply citing the original sin of all philosophical understanding: its susceptibility to death by a thousand qualifications.
This just means the cognitive legitimacy of any component of a comprehensive understanding lies in the comprehensiveness of that understanding. This is what we find compelling–and rightly so. This is why we still find Aristotelians and Kantians in our midst long after their multitudinous critics have been scattered by library auctions. This is why the telling critiques of canonical figures either attempt to offer more comprehensive alternatives, new ‘Copernican revolutions,’ or home in on particular problems such as the normativity of meaning, the objectivity of knowledge, the existence of the world, and the like, problems so intuitively powerful that no degree of systematic comprehensiveness seems to compensate for a philosophical standpoint’s inability to overcome them.
Despite ease with which the mundane can be made mysterious, we nevertheless can and do understand the fundamental in terms of it. We understand the difficult to recognize by means of the easily recognized. This platitude justifies the onto-analogical extension of our common understanding of our perspectival relation to the world to the question of our cognitive relation to the world. This extension is facilitated by the fact that we already implicitly understand our cognitive relation in these terms, despite the shortcomings of our common understanding. This fact is attested to by the ease with which we understand things such as theoretical ‘positions,’ ‘standpoints,’ and the like. Hitherto, the default assumption has been that such ‘turns of phrase’ are mere ‘metaphors,’ which is to say, ways to understand what is in fact not perspectival. The suggestion here is that these things are in fact perspectival, and fundamentally so.
The basic idea here is to use the positional mediation of our perspectival relation to the world as an onto-analogical model for all senses of our cognitive relation to the world, including the discursive. All knowledge, I want to say, consists in the occupation of a certain perspectival position in the world.
Understanding cognition in these terms demands:
1) that we understand the ‘foreground components’ of cognition, locutions and perceptions, in terms of momentary perspectival positions. The discussion of assertions in the previous chapter has already suggested how this might be accomplished with locutions: linguistic performances, the suggestion was, transform our position in ‘semantic space,’ and so refer us to different features of the world. We can understand the world through locutions because locutions attenuate our overall perspectival position. Perceptions are likewise structured. Our perceptions refer us to the world; we see the world through them. Since we are related to the world through them, our perceptions position us in the world.
Accounting for the specifics of this perspectival reconceptualization of locutions and perceptions and the subsequent role they play in meaning and cognition will occupy much of the following. For the moment, all that need be understood is the prima facie plausibility of this way of looking at them.
2) that we understand the ‘background components’ of cognition, such as our senses, history, culture, language-games, and the like, in terms of generalized perspectival positions. Since we already understand many of these registers in contextual terms, and since contexts constitute a means of understanding perspectival positions, there is a sense in which we already possess the requisite understanding. To belong to a certain cultural context, for instance, is to occupy a certain perspectival position in ‘cultural space,’ one which mediates our understanding of the world in certain ways. Other registers, however, do not readily lend themselves to contextual understanding, and so strike us as peculiar when framed in terms of perspectival positions. We do not, for example, normally speak of ‘sensory’ or ‘neurophysiological’ contexts.
The reason ‘sensory contexts’ strikes us as peculiar lies in the ‘fixed’ nature of our senses. A condition of recognizing our perspectives as perspectives, recall, lies in the ability of perspectives to ‘retentively transcend’ themselves and thus ‘see more.’ A condition of recognizing our perspectives as perspectives, in other words, is the retentive variability of position. When we cannot ‘changes positions’ within the world as framed by a certain register, it seems that we do not occupy any position at all.
On this account our senses demarcate a certain position in the field of all possible senses–a position in ‘sensory space.’ Imagine an ‘omni-perceiver,’ a spatially ‘fixed’ being who possesses the capacity to sense a single object in the world in innumerable ways, but can employ at most one of these ways at any give time. Transformations in the perspective of this omni-perceiver, then, would depend on transformations of the position he occupies in the ‘space of sensory possibilities.’ Each modality he employs would constitute a different ‘sensory angle’ on the object. He senses the world ‘from somewhere’ in ‘sensory space.’
3) that we understand the normativity of cognition in terms of perspectival position. The intimate linkage of normativity and context in our understanding is attested to by the notion of normative contexts. Perspectives are travellers not containers, and certainly not prisons. Our perspectives occupy a position in the space of giving and asking for reasons.
The inequality of perspectives is internal to our recognition of perspectives. We cannot recognize our perspective as a perspective unless we can see more of the world. Cognitive difference, in other words, is a necessary condition of our recognition of perspectives as perspectives.
[The following appears to have been appended from a draft of my prospectus]
Likewise, the different cultural features of our perspective are best construed as different angles on the world from different ‘cultural positions’ in ‘cultural space.’
In answer to (1), I will argue that perspectives are always from somewhere on something transcendent, that this ‘something transcendent’ is the world, and that perspectives are incoherent otherwise. Perspectives are constitutively intentional, which is to say, object directed. This is why a perspective is always a perspective ‘on something.’ But perspectives are also constitutively privative. A perspective on something is always a limited perspective. To say we possess a perspective ‘on something’ is to say we possess only one ‘angle’ among many on the same something. Our perspective on a table in a room, for instance, is only coherent as a perspective in contradistinction to all other possible perspectives on the table. This is simply what it means for a perspective to be ‘from somewhere’ and ‘on something transcendent.’ Implicitly, we understand that our position in the room limits our view of the table, and that the table, accordingly, transcends our perspective on it. Our perspective on the world, in other words, is a perspective on a transcendent world because the position of our perspective in the world limits us to one of many different perspectives on the same world. We are framed by the very world we frame in our perspectives.
Our perspectival relation to the world, in other words, is mediated by our position in the world. Since experience is the fulcrum of knowledge, and since our experience of the world consists in the transformations of our perspectives on the world, one might say that in some sense our cognitive relation to the world is mediated, not by representations, nor by our scorekeeping contexts, but by our perspectival position in the world. How much we know of a table in a room, whether or not it possesses three or four legs, for instance, often depends upon our position in the room. The more positions we occupy, we like to say, the more we know the table.
The fundamental idea here is to use the positional mediation of our perspectival relation to the world as an analogical model for all senses of our cognitive relation to the world, including the linguistic. A perspective’s ‘from somewhere,’ on this model, need not mean ‘from some spatio-temporal position.’ The ‘position’ of a perspective on the world may be specified in any number of ways: historically, culturally, physiologically, linguistically, and so on. A perspective’s cognitive relation to the world, on this model, is mediated by the ‘sum’ of these positions. They specify the ‘from somewhere’ of our perspectives, and thus the manner in which our cognitive relation to the world is mediated.
Consequently, all cognitive differences in perspective must be understood as differences of position, not as differences in representation. Our perceptual modalities, for instance, demarcate a certain position in the field of all possible perceptual modalities–a position in ‘perceptual space.’ Colour is not a ‘mental construct,’ a representational by-product of our parochial neurophysiology, but rather a modality of our perspectival relation to the world. The different qualitative features of our perceptual perspective are best thought of as different angles on the world from different ‘perceptual positions.’ Likewise, the different cultural features of our perspective are best construed as different angles on the world from different ‘cultural positions’ in ‘cultural space.’
Whenever we speak, as we often do, of ‘cultural perspectives’ (‘the traditional point-of-view’), ‘discursive perspectives’ (‘theoretical standpoints’), in short, whenever we relativize claims to some context, we rely on our implicit understanding of the positional mediation of our cognitive relation to the world. We implicitly understand that contexts mediate our cognitive relation to the world, but we have hitherto lacked the ontological resources needed to make this understanding explicit. This model of ‘positional mediation’ doubles as an account of the relation between context and perspectives. Contexts, on this account, are understood as perspectival frames. Contexts are how things are pertinent to a perspective on how things are. They attenuate perspectives by specifying the position that ‘frames,’ that is, mediates, their relation to the world.
This constitutes a drastic shift from the two central analogical models of the tradition: the ‘picture’ and the ‘game.’ Where the former casts us adrift by mediating our relation to the world with reified intermediaries, the latter casts us adrift by mediating our relation to the world through arbitrary normative contexts. In this account, however, our relation to the world is mediated by our position in it. Since our perspective is always a perspective on an objective world, no matter what our position, we are never in danger of ‘losing the world’ behind a veil of perceptual representations or linguistic performances. The only way to lose the world, on this account, is to leave it.
In answer to (2), I will argue that linguistic performances frame concrete perspectives on the world.
Using Brandom’s ‘tactile trope,’ one might say linguistic performances ‘grasp’ us in such a way that we ‘grasp’ the world. Although Brandom maintains the identity of concept and content, ‘being grasped’ and ‘grasping’ would seem to be completely different things. Since we are presumably ‘what is grasped’ by concepts, and since the world is presumably ‘what is grasped’ by us, we need a model where the grasp language games have on us simply is the grasp we have on the world.
But what does it mean to be ‘grasped’ by a linguistic performance, and how does this ‘being grasped’ allow us to transform ‘our grasp of how things are’?
The idea here is to consider perspective in first-person terms, as a ‘field of experience,’ rather than in third-person terms, as an individual standing in some relation to how things are. The problem with this latter standpoint is that it relies on what might be called ‘thing-thing relationality.’ The relation between perspective and world is external, a relation between two independent things. The first-person standpoint, on the other hand, is characterized by what might be called ‘figure-field relationality.’ Our perspective constitutes the field, or frame, within which certain features of the world are ‘figured.’ In spatial terms, for instance, the way a perspective frames any given feature of the world is determined by its position. Our view of the world is always a concrete view ‘from somewhere.’ Occupying different positions in a room allows us to frame the room’s various features differently. As the frame of our perspective is transformed, so is our grasp of ‘how things are.’
This, I will argue, provides an apt analogy for understanding what it means ‘to be grasped’ by linguistic performances. Linguistic performances, as mentioned, frame concrete perspectives on the world. To make a move in a language game, in this sense, is to literally move one’s interlocutors to a certain position in what might be called ‘semantic space,’ to transform their perspective in a manner analogous to redirecting them to a different position in a room.
The ‘content’ of any given linguistic performance, accordingly, is nothing other than the concrete perspective it frames. We are literally the ‘content’ of what we hear. This model forces us to exchange the venerable ontological distinction between ‘subject’ and ‘object,’ which characterizes our relation to the world as an external relation between things, for a revised, loosely Heideggerean, understanding of ‘being in the world.’ Rather than identifying ourselves with any ‘thing,’ such as the ‘mind,’ ‘consciousness,’ and the like, we must identify ourselves with our relation to the world. In first-person terms, we simply are our positionally mediated perspective on the world. Being, as Heidegger says, is always concrete ‘being in the world.’ Our contextually framed relation to the world is simply who we are.
This model, not surprisingly, also forces us to abandon the contextualist characterization of meaning as ‘use.’ When we use language, we frame our own perspective and the perspectives of others in different positions vis a vis the world. The meaning of any given locution is simply the matter of fact, contextually (that is, positionally) mediated perspective it frames. Aside from this perspective, locutions are mere noise. The normative dimension of language use, accordingly, must be understood in terms of positions rather than performances. The correctness of linguistic performances, on this model, depends upon whether it frames our relation to the world in an appropriate way. Normative contexts sanction positions, not performances. ‘Moves in a language game’ are at once moves in the world.
Since the meaning of any statement is simply the momentary perspective on the world it frames, any linguistic transformation of a perspective’s position in the world is at once a transformation of a perspective’s view on the world; the perspective/world relation is internal. Thus, to be ‘grasped’ by a linguistic performance is at once to ‘grasp’ the world. To say a linguistic performance frames a perspective, is to say linguistic performances frame a certain relation to the world. ‘Scheme’ and ‘content,’ on this account, are simply different sides of the same perspectival coin.
In answer to (3), I will argue that there is no absolute distinction between ‘how things are’ and ‘how things are taken to be.’ To say a perspective is always a perspective on the world is to say a perspective is always a perspective on ‘how things are.’ Since knowledge is the default on this account, the problem, accordingly, becomes one of explaining ignorance. If the analogical model of the positional mediation of our cognitive relation to the world makes the objectivity of that relation the default, the problem becomes one of accounting for the cognitive differences between perspectives.
Since our cognitive relation to the world is mediated by our position in it, it stands to reason that the ‘truth’ or ‘falsity’ of our perspectives, linguistically framed or otherwise, becomes a matter of occupying different positions. Since positions are relative, however, questions of the truth and falsity of various perspectives would seem to be likewise relative. But these positions are not ‘points’ in some abstract space, instead they are concrete perspectival positions on a concrete world. Some positions in a room offer more comprehensive vantages on the room than others, just as the position of being sighted offers a more comprehensive perspective on the world than being blind.
The distinction between how things are and how things are taken to be, on this account, is merely the comparative distinction between more and less comprehensive perspectives on different features of the world. A perspective can always see more of how things are–more than another and more than itself. Even though a perspective is always a perspective from somewhere, and therefore a limited perspective, perspectives are transformed over time. The ‘from somewhere’ of our perspective is framed by all the other ‘from somewheres’ we have previously occupied. This is why, for instance, our adult perspectives on the world are more comprehensive than our childhood perspectives.
Previous perspectives on the world frame subsequent perspectives. When we move from position to position in our room, for instance, we see that the table in fact possess four legs instead of three, and we realize that our previous perspective was idiosyncratic. Since perspectives can only be understood as privative in contradistinction to other perspectives, the possibility of more comprehensive perspectives on the world is an ontological feature of perspectives.
This is significant in at least two respects. First, it suggests a crucial way in which ‘knowing more’ (possessing a more comprehensive perspective) is independent of communal assessments normative adequacy. The relation a perspective possesses to the world is a matter of fact. Although normative contexts determine which perspectives we ought to occupy, they do not, in the end, exhaustively determine the actual comprehensiveness of those perspectives. Even children raised by wolves may ‘broaden their perspective’ on how things are. Since our survival in the world depends upon the comprehensiveness of our perspective, and since the ‘survival instinct,’ the imperative to survive, is prior to our participation in normative practices, it is always possible to make a correct move that is at once individual and unprecedented. In other words, more can be better independent of our practices, and because of this, it is always possible to ‘throw off the yoke’ of our practices and transform them in light of how things are.
Second, it suggests not only how it is we come to ‘know more,’ but also the powerful way in which language facilitates our knowing more. Although always ‘context bound,’ perspectives are also always ‘context transcendent.’ Even though at any given moment we possess only a single angle on a table in a room, that angle is framed by both previous angles and the possibility of subsequent angles. The actual and possible transcending of contexts, in other words, is always part of our context. And the transcending of context always amounts to knowing something more, no matter how trivial that ‘something’ might be.
Language, on this account, is our principle instrument of context transcendence. Linguistic performances, the suggestion is, frame concrete perspectives on different features of the world. By framing perspectives, linguistic performances reenact actual angles on the world. Since this world transcends our perspectives, the relation reenacted is in certain respects the same relation. An elk’s cry of alarm affords the herd a relation to a wolf in the absence of any perceptual perspective on it. This is the foundation of all linguistic communication: the reenactment of certain perspectives on the world through linguistic performances. Language, in other words, enables inter-perspectival context transcendence.
In addition, language differentiates, organizes, and condenses our perspectives on the world. Our perspectives are framed by our previous perspectives. The comprehensiveness of any given perspective is determined by the ‘from somewhere’ of our perspective, by its position. This position, in turn, is partially specified by the way previous perspectives implicitly frame it. Language, on this account, dramatically expands the possibilities of this framing of perspectives by previous perspectives, and thus drastically enhances our capacity to occupy more comprehensive positions, that is, to transcend contexts.
The association of perspectes on the world with concrete linguistic performances in the world allows for 1) the condensation of perspectives into an inventory of repeatable types possessing various syntactically and materially constrained combinatorial permutations; 2) the instrumentalization of perspectives; and 3) the semantic mobility of perspectives. When using language, we exploit the combinatorial possibilities of linguistically condensed perspectives to enact or reenact perspectives apart from whatever nonlinguistic position we occupy. Even though perceptually and practically restricted to the ‘here and now,’ our perspective can be ‘from anywhere’ linguistically. Not only can we actively pursue perspectival comprehensiveness through language, we are able to transcend our position in time and space in order to do so. The same linguistic features that make inter-perspectival context transcendence possible enable intra-perspectival context transcendence as well.
This ‘picture’ avoids many of the problems of philosophy by assuming the very thing purportedly in question, namely, the question of our access to the world. Unlike most philosophers and like most everyone else, I assume that a vantage is always a vantage on the world. The justification for this, I believe, is internal to our common sense understanding of vantages, an understanding which we invoke any time we use terms like ‘standpoint,’ ‘frame of reference,’ ‘outlook,’ and the like. In order for something like a vantage to make any sense, it must be a vantage on something that exceeds it. I take the world to be this ‘something.’
Even accounts that deny that we possess a vantage on the world still assume, by and large, some kind of vantage on something–the issue is one of what this ‘something’ is. Representational realism, for instance, assumes that we possess a vantage only on our perceptions, which somehow possess an independent relation to the world. Perceptions are a miserable candidate for this ‘something,’ however, because even though they provide something for us to have a vantage on, that something in no way exceeds our vantage. It then becomes difficult to understand how this vantage could be a vantage at all.
It seems clear to me that we do not possess a vantage on our perceptions as we perceive, but that perceptions, like assertions, are occluded. What we do have a vantage on are things like computer screens and keyboards, that is, things in the world that find themselves framed by perception. Imagine, standing in our room, that our sense organs spontaneously evolved into things like radar arrays, infra-red sensors, radio telescopes, and the like. Might we not say that our vantage has shifted in ‘sensory space,’ that we have ‘moved’ to a new position in the spectrum of possible perceptual frames? What we ‘see’ is the thing itself, but only from our limited position in sensory and physical space.
The ‘veil of perception’ that follows from representational realism, phenomenalism, and idealism arises from the same combination of frame occlusion and retrospective ascent that we saw earlier. When we look at perceptions, that is, frame them from a further vantage, the way we look through perceptions, that is, the way they frame our relation to the world, disappears. Perceptions become things. Most all representationalism, I think, admits a similar diagnosis. Representationalism, even in its most extreme, post-structuralist guises,1 is an artifact of vantages on vantages, of looking at looking through. We confuse what appears to us afterwards with what appears to us during, and then try to explain what belongs to the through-at relationality of vantages in terms of the at-at relationality of things. Once perception, like language, is understood in terms of frames rather than representations, the veil is torn away.
But perhaps the most important dividend of the account of frames and vantages lies in its reconciliation of truth and context. The fact that our vantage on the world is framed in innumerable ways, by historical traditions language, perception, and so on, simply limits our relation to the world; it does not preclude it. Once contexts are understood as frames rather than mere games, the world ceases to be a player, and constrains our vantages independently of any particular normative context we might occupy. Games change, but the world remains the same. Truth becomes what common sense tells us it is: a matter of degree.
One may accept that we possess a vantage on the world, and that in this sense we are constrained by the absolute, even though we can never say anything absolutely. But the burning question, of course, is one of what makes certain vantages better than others. The question, in other words, is epistemological. If the relative merits of different vantages is exclusively determined by normative contexts, then, given the mutual incommensurability of certain normative contexts, it seems impossible that we could ever arbitrate between the vantages that they frame. But of course this presumes that anything like the incommensurability of normative contexts is possible. Since all normative contexts frame relations constrained by the same world, this seems unlikely. The world constrains our vantages independently of normative contexts, and it is this independent constraint which seems to allow for the possible ‘fusion’ of even radically different frames. Games differ, but the world remains the same.
But even if it is always possible to arbitrate between vantages framed by different normative contexts, what assures that the result of the arbitration is not simply a matter of one normative context ‘overpowering’ another? What insures, in other words, that the world and not the game determines which vantage is better?
To say that a certain understanding of the world is more true than another, however, one must first show that it is possible for content, that is, a relation to the world, to determine what counts as understanding at all, and then show how this determination warrants claims of ‘understanding more’ independent of the stick-bearers. Demonstrating this former demands that frames be considered in the light of the contextualist critique of content. Demonstrating this latter, on the other hand, demands a consideration of the inability of ‘performative competence’ to entirely account for understanding.